By Ted Shen
“Our king never danced like a kangaroo, as he was shown in the movie–and he was generous and didn’t punish guys who stole his mistresses,” says Suchitra Surapiboonchai, explaining why she asked that the song “Getting to Know You” from The King and I be dropped from the after-dinner show at last Sunday’s lunar New Year banquet for the Asian American Coalition. “The musical offers a version of history that’s different from ours. That’s why it’s banned in Thailand to this day.”
“I love the musical, and I love Yul Brynner as the king,” says Irene Cualoping, who produced the coalition’s show. “I thought it would’ve been nice for kids to gather onstage to sing that chorus, because I wanted to appeal to all ages. But I understood Suci’s point of the inaccuracies in the portrayal, so we agreed to delete the song.” Then leaders from the Vietnamese community objected to the show’s title–Sayonara, Miss Saigon. “Another musical I happen to like a lot,” says Cualoping, who’s also head of the Organization of Chinese Americans. “And I’m quite aware of the casting controversy it provoked. But enough is enough, I said to everyone.”
The Asian American Coalition includes organizations representing 14 ethnicities; they joined together in 1984 to increase the political visibility of Asian-Americans. Its previous New Year shows had been fairly routine song-and-dance revues, but Cualoping wanted to put on a more pointed one satirizing Asian and Asian-American stereotypes. To sharpen its bite she brought in as director Quincy Wong, an irreverent stand-up who moonlights as a model and helped start the comedy troupe Stir-Friday Night! She also recruited Michael Lo, a computer programmer, and Keith Uchima, a composer and playwright who cofounded the Angel Island Theatre Company, the city’s only theater that regularly puts Asian-American actors in plays written by Asian-Americans. They all wanted to do an ambitious show. “So we thought of a musical parody of all the well-known figures and stereotypes–sort of a brief history of how Asian-Americans have fared in Hollywood and on Broadway,” says Wong, who has grown tired of auditioning for film and TV roles as a Chinese cook, a martial artist, or a Japanese businessman.
By December the team had a working script–and then the buzz started about potentially offensive material. “We sat down with leaders from all the groups and went over the script with them,” Cualoping recalls. “We wanted to make sure there was no confusion that ours was a satire.” That was when Surapiboonchai, a nurse and a spokesperson for the Thai Association of Illinois, asked them to take out “Getting to Know You.”
Close to 1,500 guests–including city and state politicos, Chicago’s Asian consulate corps, business types, and a sprinkling of celebs such as TV anchor Linda Yu–showed up for the banquet, held at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. After a lion dance, the national anthem, self-congratulatory speeches, and dinner, Sayonara, Miss Saigon went on.
Charlie Chan bantered with number one son. Suzie Wong slinked, and Cio-Cio San walked demurely. A Japanese director kept shouting “herro.” There was Kato, a couple of ninjas, Fu Manchu, and Ming the Merciless. The Dragon Lady complained that she’s so old nobody knows who she is anymore. Mulan got the biggest cheers, and Godzilla got a lot of yuks singing Barney’s signature song with new lyrics. Other jokes fell flat.
When it was over Mary Murphy, an outreach coordinator at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and a recent immigrant from Ireland, said, “I did find the jokes repetitious after a while. Stereotypes are complicated matters, rooted in a particular time and place. You know the Irish ones–drunks, dirty urchins, leprechauns–those were perpetrated by the English from the 18th century on. What we saw here were pretty lame allusions to cliches, not investigations. I’m afraid they didn’t contribute to my understanding of Asian stereotypes.”
But Jenny Yang, a financial analyst, said the skits reminded her “how hard and touching it is to try to break stereotypes. I know because my husband is Swedish, and he’s been told all his life that Swedes don’t have a sense of humor.” Nancy Tom, founder of Columbia College’s Center for Asian Arts and Media, said, “Stereotypes should be dealt with and disposed of when necessary. But even the worst of stereotypes teach us something about how others regard us.”
And Surapiboonchai? She said she was happy that “Getting to Know You” was gone, but she wasn’t at all offended by the antics of Charlie Chan. “He’s not a king,” she explained, “so it doesn’t matter.”